Cable news dominated election night TV ratings, thanks to older viewers

Tuned in.
Tuned in.
Image: Reuters/Nicholas Pfosi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

TV ratings for the US presidential election were down this year compared to 2016, due to a huge decline in the number of viewers watching the “big four” broadcast networks. Cable news, however, saw no such drop-off.

Cable channels Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC combined for 31.1 million viewers in primetime US eastern time (8-11pm) on Nov. 3, matching their total from 2016. Fox News led with more than 14 million viewers. CNN came in second with 9.4 million, while MSNBC had 7.6 million. Both Fox News and MSNBC increased their totals from 2016 by about 2 million viewers each. CNN lost about 4 million viewers from the last election.

The four major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX—combined for just 19.6 million viewers this year, down 34% from 2016. (FOX and Fox News are separate networks, but FOX ran Fox News’ coverage for some of the night.)

The stark divide between broadcast and cable highlights what a banner year it has been for cable news. Due mostly to interest in the election and pandemic, the cable networks’ ratings hit record highs this year, even as cord-cutting continues to cause a drop in TV ratings more generally.

Cable news channels tend to attract more concerned—and partisan—viewers, which can help ratings during a particularly divisive election. Fox News is the network of choice for many Republicans, while Democrats prefer MSNBC and CNN.

The broadcast networks bring in a more casual audience. And in a year in which the winner couldn’t be determined on election night, those less-interested viewers likely tuned out and went to bed early, while the more fervent observers stayed glued to cable.

The rise of social media and streaming options may have also made expendable the historically necessary act of watching broadcast networks in order to see the results. But cable networks, with their popular anchors and feverish vote-tracking efforts, add a dimension to election-night coverage you can’t necessarily get following it solely online.

The drop in election-night viewership overall was due entirely to younger viewers opting not to tune in this year. In 2016, 13.3 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 watched the election, while only 7.6 million viewers in that age group watched this year. Viewers 55 and older held steady from 2016, as nearly 28 million of them tuned into election night:

The median age of a Fox News viewer is roughly 65 years old. Viewers of that age are still watching the election on television, no matter how drawn-out the process may be. Almost everyone else is starting to bail on the ritual of waiting by the TV for the news to announce a winner.